Hazal Ocak, a reporter for Cumhuriyet newspaper who covers city and environment topics, has faced two criminal cases and four compensation cases for her reports since 2019.
Her article “Şahinbey’de İhale Oyunu” (The bidding game in Şahinbey) dated 12 June 2019, was about allegations of corruption in a parking lot tender organized by the local Şahinbey Municipality in Gaziantep.
On 14 June 2019, the lawyer representing the municipality filed a complaint against Ocak, the newspaper's publishing company and the CHP municipal council member who brought up the allegations, claiming that the article was defamatory and demanding TL 20,000 in compensation.
The case was accepted by the Gaziantep Civil Court.
Cengiz Holding’s compensation lawsuit
Ocak’s news article titled “Boğaz Manzaralı Lüks Müştemilat” ("Luxury shed with a view of the Bosphorus") whichs is about the lifting of the zoning ban in Hüseyin Avni Paşa Grove in the Üsküdar district of Istanbul was published on 6 October 2019.
Ocak wrote that after the CEO of the Cengiz Holding, Mehmet Cengiz, bought the mansion in the historical grove, the zoning ban was lifted, and drew attention to the fact that there were also new constructions.
Following day of, the lawyer of Cengiz Holding Board of Directors Mehmet Cengiz submitted a petition to the Anadolu Civil Court on Duty, claiming that the news contained "false, incomplete, inaccurate and misleading information" and “violated Cengiz's rights." He demanded that 1 million TL of non-pecuniary damages be filed against Ocak and Cumhuriyet Foundation Chairperson Alev Coşkun.
The Anadolu 14th Civil Court accepted the petition and held the first hearing on 8 January 2020.
The court reached a verdict at the seventh hearing on 26 January 2021 and rejected the case.
The “insulting a public official” case
Ocak’s news report titled “Damat İşi Biliyor” (the son-in-law knows his business) was published in the Cumhuriyet newspaper on 20 January 2020. Access to the news article, in which alleged that Berat Albayrak, the son-in-law of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Minister of Treasury and Finance of the time, bought land on the route of the Kanal İstanbul project, was blocked with the decision of the Anadolu 7th Criminal Judgeship of Peace. The Anadolu 6th Criminal Judgeship of Peace decided a denial to be published. The refutation text with Albayrak's statement was published on 9 March 2020.
On 22 January 2020, Albayrak's lawyer filed a complaint to the Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor's Office claiming that his client's "rights were assaulted." The prosecutor's office launched an investigation against Ocak for "insulting a public official."
In the indictment prepared by the Press Crimes Investigation Bureau of the Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor's Office dated 6 Marc 2020, Ocak was requested to be punished for "insulting a public official". The attorney general's deputy returned the indictment on the grounds that the offense of defamation was committed "through the press and publicly". Thereupon, on 31 March 2020, a second indictment was filed against Ocak with the charge of “insulting publicly a public official with an audio, written or video message due to his duty.” The Istanbul 2nd Criminal Court of First Instance accepted the second indictment.
The first hearing of the trial was held on 18 June 2020. Due to Covid-19 breakout, Ocak's lawyers didn’t attend the hearing.
Ocak and her lawyer were present at the second hearing on 27 October 2020. Stating that she reported the information received from the Ministry, and Albayrak’s lawyer confirmed the information received from the Ministry and the information in the questioner, Ocak demanded that the news be considered within the scope of freedom of expression.
Explaining his final opinion the prosecutor demanded Ocak’a acquittal. The prosecutor referred to the decisions of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), the Constitutional Court (AYM) and the Supreme Court and stated as follows:
“The freedom of the press is one of the indispensable elements of the democratic rule of law. In a system where the right to information cannot be used freely, events cannot be conveyed or evaluated through the press, individuals cannot access information, and cannot comprehend their freedom to express their thoughts and opinions. Individuals' free access to information and their ability to share positive or negative criticisms without being subjected to pressure is closely related to ensuring freedom of the press.”
The court acquitted Ocak, stressing that “the action was not defined as a crime in the law.”
Berat Albayrak’s compensation case against Ocak
Following the beginning of the criminal proceedings against Ocak, Albayrak requested non-pecuniary damages from Ocak and the administration of the Cumhuriyet newspape. In the complaint petition submitted to the Istanbul Court of First Instance on 14 July 2020 by Albayrak's lawyer, it was claimed that the news was "unrealistic and insulting" and 200,000 TL was demanded from Ocak and the concessionaire of the newspaper.
The Istanbul 8th Civil Court accepted the indictment and held the first hearing on 12 November 2020. Since the party lawyers did not attend, the hearing was opened and closed on file and the court adjourned the case until 25 March 2021.
“Targeting” and “violation of the right to privacy” case
Ocak wrote a news report about a structure commissioned by the Presidential Communications Director Fahrettin Altun on a plot of land next to his residence in the Kuzguncuk district of Istanbul. The article was published on 14 April 2020. In the report, it was claimed that Altun rented the land from the General Directorate of Foundations, landscaping arrangements were made, walls were built and razor wire was pulled on the area where construction is prohibited.
Altun filed a criminal complaint to the Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor's Office on 20 April 2020, claiming that "his house was photographed and his full address was published without permission" and that he was "targeted".
The Terrorist Crimes Investigation Bureau of the Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor's Office launched an investigation against Ocak. The newspaper's Editor-in-Chief İpek Özbey, Managing Editor Olcay Büyüktaş Akça and photojournalist Vedat Arık were also included in the investigation.
The Anadolu 8th Criminal Judgeship of Peace banned acces to the news report and related social media posts.
Also, upon the complaint of Altun, the Press Advertising Agency (BİK) ceased the newspaper's 35-day official announcement right on 13 May 2020. In the justification of the BİK decision, it was claimed that “Cumhuriyet newspaper exceeded the limits of freedom of reporting and expression”.
The indictment against Ocak, Akça, Özbey and Arık was completed on 16 July 2020. In the indictment, it was claimed that "Altun, who is accepted to have an active duty and responsibility in the fight against terrorism, was specified in a way that would be useful for determining the full address of Altun and there were photographs that would make it easier to find his residence, and in this way, the news would make Altun the target of terrorist organizations". The Istanbul 26th High Criminal Court accepted the indictment against Ocak, Akça, Özbey and Arık on charges of "marking officials involved in the fight against terrorism as targets" and "violating the secrecy of one's private life."
The first hearing of the trial was held on 16 December 2020. In her defense, Ocak denied all of the accusations and stated hers was only journalism activity. The second hearing of the trial will be held on 18 March 2021.
Fahrettin Altun compensation case against Ocak
Altun filed a complaint to the Anadolu Civil Court about the news aforementioned, titled "Boğaz’da Kaçak Var” and demanded a total of 250,000 TL for non-pecuniary damages from Ocak, Akça and the publishing company.
In the complaint petition, it was stated that “systematic libel campaigns were conducted against Altun due to his public duties and activities he took recently,” and it has been claimed that “Altun's rights were seriously violated with false news, campaigns, social media sharing and comments.”
The Anadolu Civil Court accepted the indictment but the prosecution has not started yet.